Role of Women in Tantra

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

In tantra, there are two important poles of energy known as Shiva and Shakti. Shiva and Shakti have various spheres of existence and operation in the cosmos and in the individual. In ordinary human society man and woman represent Shiva and Shakti respectively. In the universal mind, time and space represent the Shiva and Shakti aspects. In spiritual life, mind and prana represent Shiva and Shakti. In hatha yogic texts, these two shaktis are known as ida and pingala. Ida represents the consciousness and pingala represents the life force, or prana.

These two shaktis are the opposite poles of energy. Ordinarily, they are never together, but at the time of creation, they meet at a point of union in every sphere. In the universal mind, time and space come together at the nucleus, and when they unite, the explosion in matter takes place. Here, time is represented by the positive pole of energy, and space by the negative pole of energy.

Aspects of awakening

Man and woman are the two different poles of energy. These energy poles have been discussed in detail in the ancient tantric tradition. One may have seen a photograph of Kali standing practically naked, with one foot placed on Shiva, who is flat on the ground. She has a ferocious expression, a blood-stained tongue and a mala of 108 human skulls. This is Kali in the awakened state. One may also have come across some rare images of Shiva seated in lotus posture. Half of his body is Shiva and the other half is Shakti. Then, there are pictures of Shiva and Parvati sitting in the position of guru and disciple. Shiva is seated in lotus posture, and Parvati is seated on a lower platform. Shiva is instructing her in the secrets of tantra. About one hundred miles from Munger is a very important centre of tantra known as Tarapeetha. There, you can see Lord Shiva sucking at the breast of Shakti.

These are four examples of different relationships between Shiva and Shakti at different levels of evolution and awakening. At one point, Shakti is the disciple and Shiva is the guru; that is, woman is the disciple and man is the guru. At another level, they are not at all different. Shiva and Shakti are intertwined together in one body, one frame, and one idea. At yet another level of evolution, Shakti is supreme and Shiva is subservient. This is the philosophical interpretation of the stages of awakening of the inherent shakti in everybody.

Spiritual awareness of the woman

In the tantric tradition, the woman is considered to be higher than the man so far as the tantric initiations are concerned. This should by no means be understood as a social claim. It is purely a spiritual attitude in relation to the evolution of higher consciousness. The frame of a woman, her emotions, and her psychic evolution are definitely higher than that of a man. Awakening of the spiritual force, or kundalini, is much easier in the body of a woman than in the body of a man.

Besides this, there is another important point that should be understood. Generally, a man who goes into the deeper realms of the mind and comes out is not able to bring these experiences back with him, but a woman can. It seems that there is very little difference between a woman’s inner and outer awareness. When you go deep into your consciousness, you have certain experiences. When you return from that deeper state of mind to the gross awareness a veil falls in between those experiences and the conscious mind. In the case of a woman, this veil does not fall.

Apart from this, the psychic being of a woman is highly charged with spiritual awareness. The external expression that you will find in a woman or girl: love for beauty, tenderness, sympathy, understanding, are expressions of her inner state. This indicates that the inner awareness of a woman is very receptive and ready to explode. I say jokingly, if all women leave this world, it would become a desert – without colours, perfumes, smiles or beauty.

From the perspective of kundalini yoga, the woman’s body is charged by a particular centre, mooladhara chakra, which can be touched with the fingers. In the male body, this chakra is intricately situated in a very congested area; men do moola bandha and still nothing happens. Therefore, awakening can take place in a woman’s body much quicker than in the body of a man.

Another important point is that women have always been the main transporters of energy, while men have been the medium. The woman may not be your wife; she could be your mother, daughter or disciple. Mary was Christ’s mother. The Mother of Aurobindo Ashram was a disciple. In the same way, in the tantric tradition, there is a story of sixty-four yoginis. The word yogini is the feminine gender of yogi. These yoginis are worshipped all over India. There are sixty-four temples dedicated to the sixty-four aspects of the feminine energy.

Vama Marga

When you study the books on tantra, you come across one central theme: Shakti is the creator, and Shiva is instrumental. Shiva has never been considered a creator. One of the greatest thinkers and sages of India, Adi Shankaracharya, wrote in the first line of his most famous tantric work Saundarya Lahari, “Without Shakti, how can Shiva create?” Therefore, Hindus have accepted the union of man and woman in order to facilitate the process of evolution through tantra.

Although the relationship between man and woman had different purposes according to the cultural influences from various parts of the world, Hinduism continued to remain steadfast on one point – that the relationship between man and woman has a spiritual objective.

Before marriage, the girl sits on the right side, and when the marriage ceremony has taken place, she sits on the left. She is thus known as vama. In Sanskrit vama means ‘one who is on the left side’. It also refers to ida. Therefore, in tantra, a woman’s place is on the left side.

There is an old story about Sita and Rama. When Rama was over sixty years of age, his wife Sita became pregnant and went to live for some time in the ashram of Sage Valmiki. During this period, one of Sri Rama’s duties as emperor was to perform a certain religious ceremony. However, the wise men ruled that he could not perform that ceremony without his wife in attendance. Because Sita could not be present, and the ceremony was compulsory, they constructed a statue of her likeness, and when the ceremony was being conducted, the statue was placed on Rama’s left side.

In western countries, vama marga is a misunderstood concept. It is called ‘left hand tantra’ which is an incorrect translation. In tantra, vama marga actually means the path of spiritual evolution, which is practised with your wife. Marga means path and vama means wife, woman, partner, whichever she may be.

Tantric relationship

In vama marga, it is Shakti who is important, not only in sexual life but in spiritual practices also, carrying out the processes of creation and conducting most of the spiritual rituals. Amongst Hindus, rituals, religious and otherwise, are mainly conducted by women; men have to sit quietly. Woman is the commissioner; man is the participant. Whether it is an ordinary social ceremony, a religious ceremony, the worship of some deity, or just a day of fasting, it is the woman who has to introduce it. The man just has to follow her. This is the tradition in India known as initiation from woman to man. Vama marga is the spiritual path which can be practised along with your partner.

The second division is called kaulachara which involves the mother giving initiation to the son. Particularly the north of Bihar, is the centre for this type of initiation. Up to the borders of Nepal in the north, Assam in the east, and Uttar Pradesh in the west, is the area in which the kaulachara initiation is prevalent, even today. According to this tradition, the son considers his mother a goddess. Every morning, just as Christians go to church on Sundays or Hindus to the temple to bow down or prostrate before the deity, in the same way, the son approaches his mother. This is not just a social respect that he pays to the elders of the family. It is a spiritual adoration which is performed, not because she is his mother, but because she is his guru.

The same thing is done in vama marga, but here it is not the son, but the partner, who prostrates before the woman. The spiritual mark or mark of blessings has to be put, and it is she who places it on him, not he who places it on her.

These are the two important roles in which the woman is involved in tantra. It is a sad mistake to consider the woman in tantra only as a sexual partner. Sexual life is important, but it is not the only relationship that can exist between a man and woman. After all, your mother is also a woman, so is your daughter, just as your wife. Now, are you going to have a tantric relationship or a sexual relationship with them?

Misuse of tantra

At present the West is rebelling against its own religion. That is why they are confusing and misinterpreting tantra. They are trying to create anarchy in the sexual sphere of man. Many teachers in India are also confused on this matter. In tantra, you don’t have to fight with your religion or tradition. Tantra never said that sexual life is a sin. It says that sexual interaction is a natural urge; do it if you like. Religion in the West has said it is a sin. Only one man was born without sin, and all the rest were born with sin.

Naturally, you want to rise above all that guilt. So, you try to find some justification for sexual life, and tantra becomes a cover. Tantric thought is very clear and straightforward regarding this point. A verse in one of the ancient texts states that there is no harm if you drink wine, eat meat, or indulge in the sexual act. These are natural urges of all human beings, but if you can transcend them, your spiritual progress will be very rapid. As such, tantra should not become a cover for any particular urge in human life.

Woman comes first

In tantra the role of initiator is shifted from the male to the female. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa always considered his wife Sarada as Devi, or goddess. In Sanskrit devi means illumined or illustrious. When Ramakrishna was married, he was very young and his wife was still a child, but he only regarded her as the Divine Mother. That is how he always behaved towards her, and that is what he considered her to be.

In tantra the woman has to be dealt with very carefully because she is the high tension line for kundalini energy. You do not have to be afraid of her, but you have to be very careful because in her lies the potentiality of a great explosion. If you have a wife, then she is your wife. But if she is also going to be a tantric partner in your spiritual life, then the relationship is for a different purpose, and the process is entirely different.

This tradition has existed in India right from the very beginning. Whenever a reference is made to a man and woman, the woman is always referred to first and then the man. We never say Ram Sita, we always say Sita Ram. You never hear Shyam Radhe; it is Radhe Shyam, Radhe being the feminine and Shyam the masculine. This is because in the scheme of evolution, Shakti comes first and Shiva comes next. With this attitude, if you go on in spiritual life, either with your wife, daughter or disciple, then you have to see that she is the activator and you are the participant in every sphere. Even if a man has realized the higher awareness, he will still have difficulty communicating that to others, if he does not bring a woman into the picture.

Hypothesis in hatha yoga

In tantra it is also to be remembered that there is another path called dakshina marga or vedic tantra. Here, the woman is not necessarily the daughter, mother or wife, because the aspirant is considered to have both forces within him. Ida is feminine and pingala is masculine. Union between the mental and pranic forces is equivalent to union between a man and woman. That is the hypothesis in hatha yoga.

Ida is Shakti and pingala is Shiva. When they unite in ajna chakra it is the real union. The seat of Shakti is in mooladhara. The seat of Shiva is in sahasrara. Shiva is in eternal yoga nidra there, inactive, unconcerned, nameless and formless. He has nothing to do with destruction or creation. His consciousness is homogeneous and total, and there is no vibration in sahasrara. Shakti is in mooladhara, and by the practices of yoga, she is awakened. She becomes aroused and makes her way through sushumna up to ajna. When Shakti reaches ajna chakra, union takes place.

Dance of Shiva

This union occurs when the two poles of energy come together. When you turn on the switch, there is light, because the wires of the switch are uniting. In the same way, when union takes place in ajna chakra, an explosion occurs simultaneously. The energy created in ajna chakra moves up into sahasrara chakra. There, Shiva and Shakti unite with each other, and when they unite, when Shiva wakes up from his profound yoga nidra, he begins to dance. I am not talking about a man, but a force. Perhaps you have seen an image of Nataraja. That is the symbolic expression of the awakened Shiva. The awakening of that force in man is symbolized by the dance of Shiva in the form of Nataraja.

Next, Shakti and Shiva descend together through the same path to mooladhara, to the mundane level, the gross plane. This is the path of saints who come down to us from time to time. If you read the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, you will understand about this awakening of energy, and its union with Shiva, both of them dancing together and then coming down to our plane of existence. That is why, in kriya yoga, we have ascending and descending passages, arohan and awarohan.

The role of women in the tantric tradition has been defined, but the position of women in the modern cultures is far from this. People all over the world are fighting with their guilt and sin. If you wish to resurrect the pristine position of women today, then the whole attitude will have to change. You will have to realize this clearly, so that what you practise and teach is not a consequence of your religious conflicts within.

The social structure will have to be based on a new concept of religious realities, in which the role of women in mankind’s spiritual evolution is fully understood and accepted. This is absolutely necessary for the emergence of a new society.

20 December 1980, BSY, Munger, printed in YOGA, Vol. 19, No. 10 (October 1981)